Known mostly for its news programming, Al Jazeera English is a source for documentaries covering social and political issues around the world. The English arm of the Arabic news channel, which launched in 2006, is headquartered in Doha, Qatar, with three other hubs in London, Kuala Lumpur and Washington, DC. It’s broadcast to over 150 million households worldwide out of its home in the Middle East. With a mandate to report on the developing world, covering regions that may be neglected by other major news channels and representing voices that aren’t normally heard on mainstream television, a good number of Al Jazeera English’s documentaries come from independents, with the coverage reflecting what’s happening in South America, the Middle East and the Far East.
Flora Gregory, head of documentaries and features for Al Jazeera English, says the goal for documentaries on her channel is to complement the news by looking deeper at current news stories. ‘We go where the news has gone and explain what is happening over a long period of time,’ says Gregory. ‘The idea is we make news relevant to ordinary people.’
Gregory says there are people in each of Al Jazeera English’s hubs looking in their own regions for new filmmakers to work with. For Al Jazeera’s ‘Witness’ strand, which mostly features half-hour docs about the lives of those in developing regions, Gregory estimates that about 50% of programming is acquisitions, while the rest is made up of a mixture of commissions and in-house productions.
Gregory recommends that producers looking to start working with Al Jazeera English should naturally familiarize themselves with the channel’s programming, available in most areas in the world via satellite carriage, cable and the Internet. Two of the main strands to focus on are the aforementioned ‘Witness’ and ‘People & Power,’ which examines stories of the uses and abuses of power around the world. Gregory says ‘Witness’ examines issues through personal stories, whereas ‘People & Power’ looks at the forces (economic, cultural, political) influencing lives today.
Producers looking to pitch original docs to the channel should visit and register at Al Jazeera English’s pitching site www.ajicommissioning.net.
While Gregory finds that people still hold misconceptions about what Al Jazeera really is, she says that negative responses to the channel seem to mostly come from areas where access to it is limited, such as the United States. ‘They can’t see us in some parts of the world where there is free speech, apparently,’ says Gregory. ‘When people can see us, then any strange attitudes towards us tend to just disappear.’